I arrived in the pretty village of Mălâncrav in the early afternoon of an Indian summer day, after a slow drive along the 12-mile gravel road that leads to this ancient and isolated place. I was curious to visit Mălâncrav, because it has a larger surviving population of Saxons than any other Transylvanian village. And I also wanted to see its 14th-century fortified church.
I’d read in my guidebook that keys to the church were available at Casa Parohială — which I guessed meant Parish House — or at House 307, but I wasn’t sure where either of them was located. Signage was nonexistent in the village, no shops were open and I was beginning to fear I’d never get to see the famous Gothic murals. Then I noticed three children, two boys and a girl, sitting on a hewn log bench under a chestnut tree.
I got out of the car and approached them with a greeting of “Bună ziua,” or “Good day.” They giggled. I then continued in Italian, hoping that maybe there would be enough overlap between the two Latin languages for them to understand that I was trying to find a key for the church. One of them stood up and pointed to my notebook. I handed it to him, and he drew a little map. I thanked him: “Mulțumesc.” The kids dissolved into laughter. Then one of them said, “Where are you from?” in English. I told him, and he went wide-eyed. Another asked me my name and how old I was, also in English. They made space for me on their bench, and I learned that they’d been studying English for two years, which was surprising, because they spoke it exceedingly well. A gust of wind shook the tree and a chestnut fell and hit me on the head, which provoked much hilarity.
A few feet away, a green-painted door opened, and a woman in a flowered housedress stepped out. She called to the children, looked at me and smiled. Her daughter then took me by the hand and led me into the family kitchen, which smelled of nutmeg and cinnamon from the cookies that had just come out of the woodburning oven and were cooling on a wire rack. Her mother put some cookies on a plate, poured me a glass of caramel-colored apple juice and sat on a rush-bottom chair in the corner of the room while the children and I continued to chatter in English.
The cookies were delicious, and I was regretting that I had nothing to offer in return when it occurred to me that I could give them my guidebook. The children indicated that I should sign my name inside the front cover, which I did. Then, deciding it was probably time to go, I stood up. Both boys shook my hand, their sister kissed me on the cheek and their mother handed me a plastic bag containing a jar of plum preserves.
The paintings in the church turned out to be very beautiful indeed, but they weren’t the reason I was a little misty-eyed when I drove away from Mălâncrav.